Jonathan Gold knows his pastrami. He should. As restaurant critic to Gourmet magazine, he has sampled delis from coast to coast (by his count, 20 last week in New York alone). In his book "Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles" (St. Martin's Press, $16.95) this James Beard Award-winner writes, "The fact is inescapable: Langer's probably serves the best pastrami sandwich in America."
So what better place to meet than Langer's (over pastrami, of course) to discuss the deli scene as Gold prepares for the panel discussion he will host with Los Angeles' top deli owners in conjunction with the Yiddishkayt festival.
The Jewish Journal: Today the egg roll, taco and pizza are thought of as American food. Do you think deli food is still considered Jewish food?
Jonathan Gold: Sure, it is. At Junior's in Brooklyn you have African American and Caribbean and Asian people, and the place is completely hopping at 1 a.m. I'm not sure there's a Jew in the room, but they're all completely aware of what they're eating, even if they're having a patty melt instead of a pastrami sandwich. People know what deli means.
Sixty years ago in Los Angeles probably the biggest concentration of Jews was in Boyle Heights, but there's still generations and generations of people who grew up having Canter's in the neighborhood, having pastrami in the neighborhood, and they're hungry for it.
There's a fast food stand called Oki Dog on Pico [Boulevard] near La Brea [Avenue] owned by Okinawans where you have people doing Mexican versions of Jewish food with Okinawan-style cabbage and serving the entire thing to African Americans. It's just great.
JJ: How do you think the deli plays in Peoria, Ill.?
JG: I don't think the deli does play in Middle America. One of my favorite delis anywhere is Shapiro's in downtown Indianapolis, which is great, but it's hard to sustain a restaurant when the people who know what the food is really supposed to taste like aren't there.
JJ: How has our health consciousness affected delis in general?
JG: The successful delis have everything on the menu. I think the biggest seller at Junior's is Chinese Chicken Salad. They probably go through a half-ton a week.
JJ: Which dish is the benchmark by which you rate a deli?
JG: Pastrami on rye. If you can't do pastrami on rye, you have no reason to exist. There's something great about how much attention Langer's pays to its pastrami and its bread. There's not any less detail to the food here than somebody like Wolfgang Puck will have to the food at Spago's. When your basic core item is good, it's like a steakhouse having great steak. Everything else is gravy.
They all get pastrami out of the same package and steam it, but these guys steam it a lot longer, so it becomes denser, but also more tender, and there's more shrinkage. Most places don't do that because it's expensive.
If you're going to serve eight pounds instead of 10, there's a huge difference in your bottom line.
And there's something about hand slicing that gives with the shape of the muscle. It's like the difference between eating sushi and eating a chunk of fish.
JJ: Why do deli patrons put up with, even welcome, rudeness from servers they would never tolerate elsewhere?
JG: It's part of our culture, isn't it? We want what we want when we want it, and the deli has the first shot at that. It sounds weird, but I feel more Jewish when I walk into a deli than when I walk into a shul, because it's the smells, it's the people, it's the way they dress, it's the whole L.A. Jewish thing rolled up into one long wait in line at Junior's.
JJ: What do you see as the future of the deli?
JG: I don't know. As long as we're around, there will be delis. The delis tend to follow us Jewish people wherever we move. Brent's deli in Northridge is in an area that wasn't especially Jewish 15 years ago or so, but enough Jews are suddenly brought together by the possibility of some decent chopped liver ... because even if they marry outside of the religion or never go to shul, that's the one thing they can't give up.
JJ: How do you think L.A. delis compare to those in New York?
JG: I think Los Angeles might be the best deli town in the country right now. I have spent my entire life being sneered at by New Yorkers for living some inferior version of Jewish life here, and then I move to New York and find out that, gosh sakes, it's right here in Los Angeles.
Nate 'n' Al's is a great place. It has Beverly Hills hard-wired. It knows everything about Beverly Hills. The same people have been coming, sitting at the same counter at the same time in the morning, for 40 years.
Art's has real energy to it. There's a lot of show biz guys, and it's fancy in a way that sometimes feels a little absurd when you realize you're in there for a corned beef sandwich.
The delis here are not theme parks the way they are in New York. In New York you go to the Stage, and if there's one regular patron to every 10 tourists, it would surprise me.
Some of the delis in New York's outer boroughs are really good places, but they don't exist as cultural centers, because there's enough Jewish cultural resonance everywhere you go in New York that you don't necessarily need to have it confirmed by a restaurant. But in Los Angeles, places like Brent's, Junior's, Art's, they're real in a certain way. They're what the owners want them to be. They're what the neighborhood wants them to be. They're indivisible from the people around them, who are -- let's face it -- us. And there's something great about that.
The panel discussion on the Jewish Deli in Los Angeles, hosted by Jonathan Gold, will be held at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 8 at The University of Judaism's Gindi Auditorium, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. $5 (general), free (seniors). A book signing will follow. For tickets, call the U.J. at (310) 440-1547 or Yiddishkayt Los Angeles at (323) 692-8151.
Judy Bart Kancigor, the author of "Melting Pot Memories" (Jan Bart Publications, $19.95), can be found on the Web at www.cookingjewish.com.